Every time someone brings up the discussion of “Who’s the best Joker?”, our minds race straight to the multiple actors that played the part of the Clown Prince of Crime in theaters. Some might praise Jack Nicholson’s mobster, others Heath Ledger’s avatar of chaos, and more recently Joaquin Phoenix’s mentally damaged Joker, who’s also vying for the crown. Well, I’m sorry to break the news, but the best Joker is Mark Hamill, and his best Joker interpretation doesn’t come either from movies or TV. The best Joker is in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham trilogy. Fight me!
Before I start to defend myself on Twitter, let me be clear and say that every Joker interpretation we’ve ever had the pleasure to see on the big screen was able to underline one of the many things that make the Joker, well, the Joker! However, due to the limitations of the media, no movie was ever able to bring so much detail to the character as the Batman: Arkham trilogy does. Video games have a clear advantage in exploring a character because this medium works with different branches and layers, allowing the player to be an active part of the story instead of watching a linear narrative.
The Batman: Arkham trilogy gives players the power to be the Batman, glide freely over Gotham City, and uncover bits and pieces of the past of each of its villains, through optional tasks and secret files. By adding so much side content (maybe too much content in the case of the third game, Batman: Arkham Knight), the game series can explore Batman’s villains’ past without getting in the way of the main story progression. Furthermore, since the main story doesn’t need to restrain itself to fit in two hours (or three… or four…), even by following only the main path the games can give a lot more time for characters to develop.
Even so, to claim Batman: Arkham’s Joker is the best because of media constraints wouldn’t be fair to one of the main actors responsible for making the series of superhero games so memorable: Mark Hamill. After years of experience dubbing the Joker on the Batman: The Animated Series, Hamill was able to get to know the character as few people do and brought all this energy when working in the game. This, together with some of the best original Batman stories ever written, makes the Batman: Arkham trilogy so influential to superhero games.
When Warner opened a second studio to do a prequel of Rocksteady’s trilogy, the resulting game flopped. Batman: Arkham Origins has a lot of good going on, but by changing the writers and, importantly, the voice of the Joker, the prequel story lost a lot of the impact of the two first games. Don’t get me wrong, Troy Baker is an amazing voice actor, but he’s better suited to handle the Dark Knight than the Joker. There’s just something unique in the way Hamill brings the Clown Prince of Crime to life. That, united with a good story and with a media structure that allows for an expansive and interconnected narrative, makes Hamill’s work in the Batman: Arkham trilogy the definitive adaptation of the villain.
Praising Hamill, however, is not enough to make my case. We also need to discuss the different versions of the Joker that showed on film. That’s right, we’ll stir the pot and highlight the best aspects of other Joker versions, their shortcomings, and how Hamill does a better job in portraying the different aspects of the Clown Prince of Crime in the Batman: Arkham trilogy. In order to keep this list tight and clean, we’ll just take into account the Joker versions that appeared in movie theaters. A lot of great actors did a great job bringing the Joker to TV or straight-to-video; however, these versions of the Joker tend to reach a smaller audience and are rarely brought up as the best interpretations of the character. A second warning: This list is based on a subjective order, inspired by a particular perception of how each actor was received as the Joker, and how lasting their impact has been on fans. This list will, of course, have a lot of spoilers, from the Batman: Arkham trilogy and from every Joker movie that is mentioned.
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Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Mark Hamill vs Jared Leto
Jared Leto first showed up as the Joker in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. The movie’s production had a lot of executive interference, and the result was, unsurprisingly, a mess. One of the most reviled aspects of Suicide Squad was Leto’s Joker, a tattooed gangster with a shining grill over his teeth. As soon as Leto’s performance began to be criticized on social media, Ayer, Leto, and even other members of the cast tried to tell the public how most of the Joker scenes were cut from Suicide Squad, which, of course, prevented character development. I’m not so sure more Joker scenes would have saved Leto’s performance in Suicide Squad. I still have nightmares with the Joker growling…
Leto could have gone into history as a Joker almost unanimously despised. But then came Zack Snyder’s Justice League, bringing this version of the Joker back for post-credits scenes. And it was… good? Not great, and undeserving of sitting on the same table as the big boys, but a lot better than anyone could expect — the same could be said about the whole movie. The Knightmare Joker brought some redemption to Leto’s Joker, by allowing the actor to live a more dangerous, and less edgy, version of his character. The Knightmare scene is a short one, but we can feel the heavy energy between Leto’s Joker and Ben Affleck’s Batman, two enemies entangled in a life of struggle, and both ready to snap and cross the ultimate line.
It’s not hard to justify how Batman: Arkham is dripping with the same energy. In the second game of the series, Batman: Arkham City, the Joker is dying and desperate. In order to find a solution to his health issue, the Joker infects Batman (and a lot of other innocents) with his corrupted blood just to be sure that either the Dark Knight will save them both, or they will both die together. Batman and the Joker cannot live without one another, but the urgency of the situation pushes both rivals to their limit, and their struggle ends with the Joker laughing his last laugh.
This is a blow that Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have recovered from on Batman: Arkham Knight; the Joker is a shadow that haunts the Dark Knight through visions. Even if Arkham Knight is the subpar entry in the trilogy, the way Hamill torments Batman (and you, the player) during the whole game, with small jokes and smart retorts, is the best example of how both characters are fated to define one another, until they both meet their final destiny at the grave.
LEGO Batman: Mark Hamill vs Zach Galifianakis
Image via Warner Bros.
Okay, let’s be honest, Zach Galifianakis is probably the last name anyone thinks of when talking about Joker versions. Then again, Galifianakis is not hated as Leto once was, and I would dare to say he did a great job. The LEGO Batman Movie is a special entry on our list, part spin-off of The LEGO Movie, part parody of the Dark Knight universe. It’s not a “serious” film by any metric, but maybe because of that, it can lean heavily on the almost-romantic relationship between Batman and the Joker. LEGO Batman’s plot revolves around the Joker discovering Batman doesn’t think of him as his true archenemy, feeling cheated and acting out on it. At the same time, Batman needs to rediscover his passion for fighting the Joker and realizing who his true half really is. The movie plays with a lot of romantic comedy tropes, and that’s an amazing choice that should be praised a lot more than it actually is.
The Batman/Joker conflict has certain homoerotic energy all over it, with some comic book arcs, such as The Dark Knight Returns and Death of the Familly, overplaying this curious aspect of the duo’s relationship. Even so, it’s not a Joker characteristic that gets adapted often, which makes it even more unexpected that an animated movie aimed at families would explore this aspect of the Batman/Joker relationship.
Hamill also uses some of this energy on the three main Batman: Arkham titles, while Joker repeats constantly he and Batman are not that different. They are two sides of the same coin, and even if they are mortal enemies, they are the only ones who can truly understand one another. One of the main sections that underlines this complicated relationship happens during Batman: Arkham City. After exploring an underground lost section of Gotham and battling Raʼs al Ghul, Batman listens to a series of messages left by the Joker, after spending a couple of hours without a reception. Hamill goes from curious, to angry, to sad, like a jealous man, in a bit that’s both funny and fundamental to understand all the nuances of the Joker’s feeling towards Batman.
1960s Batman: Mark Hamill vs Cesar Romero
Image via Warner Bros.
Cesar Romero’s Joker is mostly known for his work on the 1960s Batman series starring Adam West as the Dark Knight. Fortunately, the series gave birth to a Batman feature film that indeed showed up in theaters in 1966. This is a great excuse to not break our self-imposed rules, but still pay homage to the only Joker version a whole generation got to follow. The 1960s Batman, both the series and the film, are a funny adaptation of the Dark Knight comics that looks a lot different from the grim and dark universe we are used to nowadays.
The series was created in a moment where comic books dealt with censorship, due to worries about how the violence could corrupt young minds — some things never change, unfortunately. Filled with music, dance, and comedy, Batman had a Joker that was not that scary, but damn was Romero funny. Sometimes we cling so much to the tragic relationship between Batman and Joker that we forget that the Clown Prince of Crime should be funny! If the joker is not telling good jokes, there’s something missing from the character, and no other actor embraced the campy and quirky side of the character as Romero.
Fortunately to us, Romero is one of the inspirations for Hamill’s work on Batman: The Animated Series, an experience he would carry over to the Batman: Arkham series. The first title of the series, Batman: Arkham Asylum, would set the tone for how the Joker would not only be scary but also playful. In the game, the Joker took control of Arkham Asylum, trapping Batman with a lot of supercriminals while planning on destroying Gotham. The Joker, however, doesn’t always appear while the story progresses, but he’s actually a constant presence, making puns non-stop through the Asylum speakers. Hamill’s Joker performance follows the player at all times, even when they are just exploring the Asylum and collecting optional objects. There’s a lot of time to fill with jokes, and Hamill is the perfect companion to balance the gloomy atmosphere of the games with some great funny lines.
Tim Burton’s Batman: Mark Hamill vs Jack Nicholson
Things are heating up as we get to the top, as there’s no question about Jack Nicholson holding the crown of best Joker for almost two decades. This is not an impression that fades away so easily, and even nowadays Nicholson is remembered as the definitive Joker. I’ll push my luck and say that Tim Burton’s Batman didn’t age that well. Gotham is still visually stunning, but the movie never commits itself to the campiness of the story, neither can it be really taken seriously. Nicholson, however, still shines as the mobster disfigured by acids that embrace his crazy side while leading his henchmen through wacky schemes.
The Joker first showed up in the comics as a criminal mastermind, and Nicholson is inspired by how the villain is not only a nemesis to Batman but also the leader of a crime faction. There’s craziness in the Joker’s actions, but there’s also a deep connection to regular criminal actions, such as robbing banks and demanding ransoms after kidnapping the mayor. Nicholson plays this part to the letter, and it’s easy to understand how his Joker adaptation can be the best one for a lot of people.
While Batman: Arkham Asylum underplayed the Joker position as a crime lord, there’s no denying Batman: Arkham City highly compensated. While gliding through the Gotham streets, players can observe how different crime factions interact with each other. The Joker, the Penguin, and Two-Face are constantly disputing territory, and by using Batman’s tech, it’s possible to intercept communication between the goons and their masters, which helps to develop each of the villains, as we get to see how they talk with people other than the Dark Knight. This worldbuilding tool helps to expand the game’s narrative, making Hamill’s Joker an even more complex character.
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Joker: Mark Hamill vs Joaquin Phoenix
Todd Phillips’ Joker became an unexpected hit by giving the Batman villain a new and unique origin story. By taking the Dark Knight out of the scene, Joaquin Phoenix can explore the Joker’s mental health issues in a grounded way. We are no longer in a universe of capes and costumes, where “crazy” is just a synonym for “wacky”, but in a city that doesn’t offer the proper care to those in need, and is guilty of Joker’s crimes by not acting in time to treat his mental health. Even if mental asylums were always part of Batman’s mythology, no other Joker version took the care to treat the subject as a real-world problem, instead of using the “crazy” people only as an enemy or a joke. This approach, however, walks the thin line of explaining the villain and justifying his actions, which unfortunately lead to a lot of viewers idolizing Phoenix’s Joker.
Controversy aside, Phoenix is a brilliant actor and makes the Joker his own by diving into the character through his perspective instead of trying to mimic the Jokers that came before. It’s a powerful and touching interpretation that will remain in our memories for a long time. However, it is hard to imagine this version of the Joker fist-fighting Batman, or releasing laugh-gas in the streets. Phoenix’s is damaged, real, and intense. But it misses some of the campiness of comic books, which means introducing Batman in this universe could actually damage this version of the Joker.
By debuting the Batman: Arkham Asylum franchise inside the mental hospital for supervillains, Rocksteady was able to make the Joker’s mental health a star of the show. Hidden in the Asylum there are tapes with the recording of the therapy sessions the various Batman villains are a part, exposing how their minds work. Joker’s tapes in the first games retell Harley Quinn’s origins, but most curious is the tape series you can unlock in Batman: Arkham City. Hamill’s Joker opens his heart and reveals his supposed origin story, only to be unmasked by Hugo Strange, his therapist at the moment. The conclusion is that all Joker origin stories are fabrications of the villain’s mind and that we don’t actually know his true story. This perspective helps to create a more terrifying villain, while at the same time opening a lot of space for the campy aspect of comics to flourish, since the character doesn’t need to reflect a realistic mental disease.
The Dark Knight: Mark Hamill vs Heath Ledger
Image via Warner Bros.
With the tragic death of Heath Ledger, we were robbed of a great actor, and now we can only wonder how the third part of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy would have looked had the Joker been a part of it. Ledger’s Joker is the best personification of the chaotic nature of the character. He doesn’t care about his own life, or anyone’s for that matter. All the Joker wants is to show that rules are boring and everyone can be broken. This aspect of the Joker makes him a perfect opposite of Batman, bound by the rules he chooses to follow to convince himself he’s a hero, even though he spends his nights beating people into a pulp and committing crimes.
Ledger’s Joker is scary as no Joker before, so involved in his mission of spreading chaos that he can even reach the public and make us question our own loyalty to the social rules we usually follow. By preaching freedom while destroying lives, Ledger’s Joker became the villain’s favorite version to a legion of fans, still faithful to The Dark Knight’s vision of Batman’s mythology. Even if Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker is perfect for what it intends to be, it’s still an incomplete version of the Clown Prince of Crime, not too funny, not too connected to the crime itself, not enough in love with Batman. This doesn’t mean Ledger’s work needed to be different in The Dark Knight, it’s just a statement that the movie has its own version of the Joker that doesn’t reflect everything the comics built over the decades.
Hamill’s Joker in the Batman: Arkham series also embraces the chaotic mastermind Ledger brought so well to the big screen. The plot of the Batman: Arkham games moves accordingly to the Joker’s will, as the villain tries to anticipate Batman’s reactions and comes up with new ways to put the Dark Knight on the edge of breaking his rules. Hamill’s Joker wants Batman to cross the line and kill him, just like Ledger’s. That’s why in the Batman: Arkham trilogy he kills Bruce’s lover, tortures his protegé, and threatens innocent lives constantly.
Batman: The Animated Series: Mark Hamill vs Mark Hamill
Image via Warner Bros.
Sometimes the Joker is funny, sometimes scary. Sometimes he embraces chaos, while other times he cautiously plans his every move and acts as a powerful crime lord. Sometimes he wants to stop Batman, while in other moments he allows himself to love the Dark Knight as his true opposite. Only Hamill had the proper time to play all these different aspects of the Joker, first in Batman: The Animated Series, the definitive Batman adaptation for a lot of people who know what they are talking about. Just as with the 1960s Batman show, the series went to the movies with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a theatrical release that brought all the animated series cast and crew to the big screen, Hamill’s Joker included.
With this heavenly-sent loophole, we can take the last moment to praise Hamill’s Joker as the definitive personification of the Clown Prince of Crime, both in games, series, and movies. It’s not surprising that the main inspiration for Batman: Arkham was Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm animated series, and easier to understand why Hamill was chosen to give the Joker life in the games. If the Batman: Arkham Joker’s version is ahead of the animated series, it’s just by an inch; a tie between the two of Hamill’s works would not be hard to justify. However, the games can add emotional stakes the series couldn’t, given its rating.
Blood and violence don’t make a better story, and to say Batman: The Animated Series is childish would be a huge mistake. However, certain themes need to be toned down to be featured in an animated show intended to reach a teen public. Without these constraints, the Batman: Arkham trilogy can feature a lot of scenes that show us, without a doubt, that the Joker is a menace that needs to be stopped, a true villain that cannot be praised, even if he can indeed be funny from time to time. The Batman: Arkham trilogy has a lot more death and danger than the animated series, and this gives emotional weight to Batman’s actions and choices, even more because, by holding a controller in their hands, players become the person who’s directly affected by Hamill’s Joker.
With all that said, maybe pitching both Hamill’s Jokers one against the other might not be the best approach, since both works can be seen as one and the same. The Batman: Arkham trilogy continues the amazing work of Batman: The Animated Series by adapting its story to a new media structure. It’s not exactly a different Joker Hamill’s playing but the same character, getting deeper and more complex as the years go by. Be it as it may, it’s hard to question Hamill’s voice talent, and at least for me, his Joker will always be the gold standard.
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Marco Vito Oddo
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